Exile in South Philly

Exile in South Philly

Theatre Exile

On a bitterly cold morning on March 22nd, my son Simon and I set out for a scavenger hunt around the East Passyunk section of South Philly.

“You woke me up early on a Sunday morning for this?” Simon said as I parked the car on 13th and Reed St. He is twelve years old and he values his weekend rest.

It’s true that I had encouraged (forced) him to go, and the weather was colder than expected, but the event was a fundraiser for Theatre Exile and I thought it would be fun for both of us to scavenger hunt around my old South Philly stomping grounds.

I pictured us racing in and out of stores on Passyunk Ave. asking the shop owners pre-determined questions, purchasing crazy items to turn in at the finish line, and performing silly tasks at certain stop points, all while taking in the flavor of the ever-changing East Passyunk community.


We registered inside Exile’s intimate theater space and joined the other twenty participants waiting to hear the logistics. Ed Wagner explained the details.

“Welcome to Full Moon Rallye 60,” he said, distributing a pack of papers to each team.

“What the heck is a rallye?” Simon grumbled.

“I have no idea, but I’m sure it’ll be fun,” I said, wondering if “rallye” was a new hipster term for “scavenger hunt.”

Ed explained that a rallye is not a scavenger hunt; there would be no questions to ask and there would be no items to procure. I learned that he organizes these programs regularly at Club Edventures.

I shuffled through our pack of papers and saw that on each sheet were photos from around the area: quirky doorways, street signs, window decorations, etc.

Enter through the side door?

The top of each sheet included Route Instructions–a step by step guide to intersections and specific city blocks. When the team found the item in the photograph, they were supposed to write down the Route Instruction that it matched.

I didn’t quite get the gist of it completely, but I did understand one important thing:

This was a completely visual task.

And for Simon, who is blind, this means utter and complete boredom.

“It’s okay,” I told him as we processed the information. “You’ll get some exercise and the rallye won’t last too long.”IMG_1487

“I’ve allotted four hours for the teams to complete the rallye,” Ed said.

“FOUR HOURS?” Simon whisper-yelled at me.

I scrambled. “Well, at the end we get pizza at Marra’s!” That appeased him for the moment, but I knew it was going to be a long day.

The best rallye team ever!

We joined forces with my friend Reuben Wade (board president of Theatre Exile) and his mother, Bert.

As we set forth on our challenge I was forced to look closely at my surroundings, not only for the rallye, but also to verbally describe to Simon the items we sought.

“Okay, now we’re looking for a stone gargoyle statue on someone’s porch,” I told Simon.

“What’s a gargoyle?” he said, tapping his cane on the sidewalk, his hands turning icy cold as he held mine.

Luckily, I had two very talented wordsmiths on our team as Reuben is a playwright and Bert is a former newspaper reporter. They helped me explain and describe the odd items on our rallye list. We found the gargoyle and I had Simon explore the stone figure with his hands.

After a quick snack at Black & Brew, and a cookie-eating challenge at the Passyunk Fountain, we finally completed the Rallye, and arrived at the iconic Marra’s Pizza to claim our well-deserved slices.IMG_1507

Reuben bravely attempted the challenge of eating an Oreo without his handsReuben eating an Oreo without his hands

While we thawed out and ate our pizza I was lucky enough to chat with Theatre Exile’s Producing Artistic Director, Deborah Block, who told me that Theatre Exile has been a thriving theater in South Philly for 18 years.

Deborah is a pioneer in the Philly theater scene. She brought the Fringe Festival to Philadelphia in 1996, she has taught classes at University of the Arts and Walnut Street Theater, and this season at Exile she’s directing “Smoke” by Kim Davies. She appreciates the Philly theater community because she values the changing cultural landscape. “The philanthropy is great in Philly, and [she enjoys] getting to know people and speaking the truth of Theater Exile.”

Deborah Block
Deborah Block

Deborah has roots in South Philadelphia. Her mother lived at 4th and Emily before moving to the Strawberry Mansion area where she raised her family, and Deborah’s husband, Doug Smullens, graduated from South Philadelphia High School. Deborah has lived in her South Philly community for 14 years now and appreciates the changes she’s seen. She truly felt like a part of her neighborhood once she was pregnant. “South Philly is very accepting. If you bother to say hello to your neighbors, they will welcome you–it may take three times, but it will work. There is a live and let live attitude with the older neighbors in the area.” She likes the directness of the South Philly vibe. “I value that people tell you how they feel.”

IMG_1518Deborah is invested in her South Philly neighborhood. She lives just a few blocks away from where she works at Exile and her son attends public school at nearby Andrew Jackson Elementary School. Her mother taught in public school for many years so she’s decided to take a leap of faith with the Philadelphia School District.

Deborah gives back to her neighborhood by sharing her theater expertise: she leads activities at Christopher Columbus Charter School and she has offered a playwriting elective twice a week with monologues. She finds that people from the neighborhood are slowly coming to attend the plays at Theatre Exile.

Past and present on Passynk Ave

Deborah describes the mission of Theatre Exile as “diving into the human condition that doesn’t often get illuminated. The area of grey morality.” Plays are unusual, funny and sometimes even bloody. “Five gallons of blood were used in one of our plays,” Deborah laughs. Their work focuses on the direct, intimate, visceral and cinematic.

The studio at Theatre Exile holds 50 seats and when larger plays are performed, as in their recent version of “Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?” they often use the Plays and Players Theater on Delancey Street.

Deborah and I have something in common other than a love for South Philly and Theatre Exile. Deborah has a family member who is visually impaired. Her brother, David Block, is a writer and documentarien. His work can be found here: Blind Film Maker.

A well-deserved pizza meal at Marra's for all the participants
Pizza at Marra’s!

Back to the Rallye, our team didn’t win, but Simon happily scarfed down a few slices of pizza and warmed up on the second floor of Marra’s. We drove back to our neighborhood in the suburbs and I felt grateful. Grateful that I had the opportunity to really look around at the quirky and wonderful streets of South Philly and grateful that there are people like Deborah Block who are willing to stick around and nurture the neighborhood with culture, compassion and creativity.

Congratulations to Theatre Exile on being nominated for several 2015 Barrymore Awards!  Check out their 2015-16 season, especially their world premiere of “Rizzo”.

More pics from around East Passyunk: